A Literary Tour de France
Robert, Gauthier, et Vernarel

In 1764 when the government conducted a survey of all the printers and booksellers in the kingdom, Bourg-en-Bresse appeared as little more than a blip on the cultural map.  It had two booksellers, both of them considered as “honnêtes gens,” whose stock consisted primarily of legal and religious works.  They had never infringed any of the rules governing the book trade.  No forbidden books circulated, and there were no other booksellers in the entire province.  The trade almanacs of 1777 and 1781 confirmed that impression, which hardly seems surprising.  Even today, the first thing that comes to mind when many people think of Bourg-en-Bresse is chicken—plump capons and hens, the specialty of its cuisine.  Chickens were a major product of its economy in the eighteenth century, along with grain, horses, and cattle.  Bresse was farming country set in gentle hills, swampy in some places but attractive everywhere.  Bourg, its capital, had only 7,000 inhabitants.  The middling sort, mainly lawyers and officials attached to its bailliage court, attended concerts, plays, and, after 1783, sessions of an academy devoted to the arts and sciences.  Bourg supported a fairly active cultural life, but it did not seem to offer a promising market for books, especially books of the kind that came hot off the presses in Switzerland.

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Yet an audacious variety of literature reached readers in Bourg and the surrounding region, thanks to a bookselling firm that never surfaced in the official reports and almanacs (except for one misleading reference in the Almanach de la librairie of 1781).  The history of this company, Robert et Gauthier, is difficult to piece together, but enough of the pieces have survived, scattered in disparate corners of the archives, to suggest that the world of books in a quiet provincial capital and a remote province was less conventional than might be expected.  The company appears in five different dossiers of the STN papers: “Robert & Compagnie” in Bourg, Saint-Claude, and Lons-le-Saulnier; “Vernarel” in Bourg; Robert et Gauthier” in Bourg; “Gauthier” in Belfort and Bourg; and “Robert et Gauthier” in Belfort.  It was a partnership, stitched together, pulled apart, and patched up at various dates between 1772 and 1785.  Although Bourg-en-Bresse served as its headquarters, it operated out of many towns and cities, from Belley, 45 miles southeast of Bourg, to Belfort in the northeastern corner of the Franche-Comté.  The partners all came from Bourg.  They are difficult to identify, as the letters did not mention first names; but they included Jacques Robert and probably one of his brothers, Pierre Gauthier and a brother of his, and an established bookseller in Bourg named Vernarel, who left the partnership in 1773.  In a letter of July 3, 1773, Vernarel informed the STN of “…ma dissolution de société avec MM. Robert et Gauthier ….MM. Robert et Gauthier n’étant plus à Bourg, M. Robert se trouve à Lons-le-Saulnier et M. Gauthier à Belley en Bugey.»  The Almanach de la librairie of 1781 lists Vernarel under Bourg and « Robert et Gauthier » under Belley without reference to any other locations.  In fact, Robert et Gauthier continued to do most of their business in Bourg-en-Bresse, while ordering books from many other places.  The Belfort branch also dealt in the paper trade.  In 1784 it sold its stock of books, valued at 3,000 livres, to André Faure, identified both as a clerk and an “associé” of the company; and he continued as an independent bookseller in Belfort until at least 1788 (he has a separate dossier in the STN archives). 

By compiling and comparing letters from all these dossiers, one can see that “Robert et Gauthier,” (the official name or legal identity known as a “raison”) was a network that extended across a large part of eastern France.  Book businesses of that kind were not supposed to exist, because booksellers were only authorized to operate out of one location, subject to the jurisdiction of the nearest chambre syndicale.  Robert et Gauthier had no authorization to sell books throughout such a large territory.  They simply set up shop wherever they could find customers, and they found that their customers wanted a large variety of contemporary literature, much of it illegal.   

            Unfortunately, their correspondence reveals little about their everyday affairs.  Did they have imposing stores on main streets, or were they upscale peddlers who used Bourg-en-Bresse as a base and set up shop from time to time and town to town?  Probably the latter, although they had strong ties to the bourgeoisie of Bourg, including a Robert who was an influential tax collector (official of the Ferme générale).  Like marchands forains, the partners were constantly traveling.  They criss-crossed the Franche-Comté and sometimes went as far as Plombières-les-Bains (probably to sell books to the fashionable patrons of the spa) and Strasbourg (in order to do business at the book fair).  A letter from Salins by the elder Robert (identifiable by his relatively poor handwriting and spelling), said he had been hauling crates of books across the countryside in his wagon. Yet Robert et Gauthier did business on a large scale, larger than they could manage.  They went bankrupt in 1778, and the papers connected with the adjudication of their case show that their stock was valued at 55,230 livres and that it came from 18 wholesalers in Paris as well as publishers in Lyon, Geneva, and Neuchâtel.  

            The character of their business can be followed from their correspondence with the STN.  The first letter, written by Robert from Saint-Claude on June 6, 1772, concerned a local affair, a suit against the Abbey of Saint-Claude brought by peasants who complained of the excessive seigneurial dues inflicted on them by the monks.  The lawyer for the peasants, Charles-Gabriel-Frédéric Christin, turned the case into a general indictment of the vestiges of feudalism, and appealed to public opinion in a tract published by the STN, Dissertation sur l’établissement de l’Abbaye de Saint-Claude, ses chroniques, ses légendes, ses chartes, ses usurpations, et sur les droits des habitans de cette terre.  Robert, who knew Christin, wanted 100 copies of it; and he hoped that this first transaction could lead to sustained commercial relations, especially if the STN could deliver its books safely across the border.  He was eager to order “…livres secrets comme L’Espion chinois, L’Académie des dames, Dom B, Messaline, La Religieuse en chemise, et des autres dans le même genre. »  This genre was what today is known as pornography.  The STN did not print such books, but it procured them from other publishers by trading its own editions against theirs.  Soon it was exchanging letters with Robert about how it could get this and other varieties of literature to him.

            Robert recommended using “assureurs” or agents who combined smuggling with insurance and guaranteed to reimburse the value of any merchandise that might be seized by border patrols.  The model for this service had been developed in the trade of calicoes (“indiennes”), he explained.  In order to protect the silk industry, especially in Lyon, the French government had forbidden the import of calicoes, and Swiss textile companies hired “assureurs” to smuggle their goods into France at a rate of 20-25 livres per hundredweight.  In September, Robert came up with the man for the job: Guillon l’aîné, who operated out of Clairvaux-les-lacs, a village high in the Jura Mountains on the French side of the border near Geneva.  (For details, see the information on Guillon under “Middlemen and Smugglers” on this website.)  Guillon hired teams of peasants who carried packets of books on their backs to his store rooms in Clairvaux, and he then forwarded them, repackaged as domestic shipments, to destinations in France.  He charged 12 percent of the value of the merchandise.  Robert proposed that the STN split the cost with him and pay for the shipping as far as Nyon, just north of Geneva on Lac Léman, where Guillon would take over.  With their supply lines secure, Robert said, they could do a great deal of business.  He had already sent a second order, and he asked the STN to supplement it with another lot of “ouvrages philosophiques et les romans un peu libres.”  These included a dozen copies of d’Holbach’s atheistic treatise, Système de la nature, a dozen of Mercier’s utopian novel, L’An 2440, and a half dozen of the scandalous libel, Le Gazetier cuirassé.

            The first shipments arrived safely.  Robert ordered more, concentrating less on “livres philosophiques” than on assortments of legal but pirated books.  He sent payment and even offered to transport the STN’s shipments to other booksellers from his outpost in Lons-le-Saulnier to Chalon-sur-Soâne.  But Guillon’s operation broke down in 1773, and Robert did not resume ordering books until September, 1774.  By then the STN had opened up a route through Lyon, and Robert could get small packets smuggled from Meyrin, a village on the outskirts of Geneva, using employees of the tax farm itself, which patrolled the border.  They would deliver two a week to “Monsieur Robert, contrôleur general des fermes du roi à Bourg-en-Bresse.”  Apparently Jacques Robert had relatives strategically placed in the local elite.  Among the wide variety of books desired by his clients, he noted a demand for the apocryphal Mémoires de Louis XV, a scandalous account of the reign of the late king, who had died only four months earlier: “Il faudrait m’en envoyer 6 tout de suite à l’adresse que je vous donne.”

            The orders and shipments continued for the next three years, accompanied by occasional disputes of the kind that were common in the book trade—about delays in the arrival of bales, spoiled sheets, disagreements over debits in account statements, and arrangements for payment.  Despite these complaints, relations seemed quite amicable.  Robert and Gauthier sometimes stopped by Neuchâtel on their travels; and when the STN sent Favarger on a tour of eastern France in 1776, it instructed him to assess their business.  The assignment, as in Favarger’s full-scale tour de France two years later, involved sniffing about for information on their morals as well as their credit, but Favarger did not come up with much:

Robert et Gauthier sont absents tous deux.  On ne les dit pas trop bons; quoiqu’ils gagnent gros, ils laissent protester souvent de leur propres billets.  On dit que le premier manque de conduite.  Enfin, je n’ai pu les voir.  Vernarel paraît le mieux de cette ville, fort bien assorti; on le dit bien rangé et payant bien.. 

By this time, Vernarel had gone into business on his own, but the STN continued to supply Robert et Gauthier with a steady stream of books, in Belfort and Lons le Saunier as well as in Bourg-en-Bresse.  Many letters are missing, but one can follow the flow of business from the STN’s letter book, where it kept copies of its correspondence, and the “livres de commissions,” where it recorded its shipments.   

References in the letters indicate that Robert et Gauthier also built up their stock from other publisher-wholesalers, notably Samuel Fauche, the former partner of the STN, who dealt heavily in forbidden books, and Jean-Samuel Cailler of Geneva, who specialized in printing them.  By the end of 1776, the company’s store rooms held a great many illegal “livres philosophiques.”  On December 23, 1776, Pierre Gauthier stopped in Neuchâtel on one of his trips and agreed on an exchange with the STN, which was recorded in a “livre de commissions” under that date and discussed in a follow-up letter by Gauthier on June 22, 1777.  Exchanges were usually measured in sheets rather than list prices, and they provided a way for booksellers to vary their stock by trading works that they had in large numbers for works that they selected from the stock of an allied dealer.  The STN built up its holdings of “livres philosophiques” in this manner, usually exchanging three sheets of a legal work for two of an illegal one.  In this case, the STN traded legal (but pirated) works, such as the sentimental novels of Claude-Joseph Dorat and the treatise on natural history by Jacques-Christophe Valmont de Bomare, for hard-core “livres philosophiques,” including 100 copies of Mercier’s L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante, 300 Parnasse libertin, and 300 Histoire galante de la tourière des Carmélites, ouvrage fait pour servir de pendant au Portier des Chartreux.    The STN had once sold some of these books to Robert et Gauthier.  Now it was acquiring them by means of an exchange with Robert et Gauthier, who clearly had built up a large stock in order to supply customers in the underground trade.    

The first sign of serious trouble appeared in a letter from the STN of November 27, 1777, complaining about unanswered letters and an unpaid money order.  Several months of silence followed.  Then, in March 1778, the STN learned that Robert et Gauthier had gone bankrupt.  Robert submitted the company’s balance sheet before a commercial court (“Juges et consuls”) in Paris on July 23, 1778.  To the STN and a lawyer it hired in Bourg-en-Bresse, this procedure seemed highly irregular, because the seat of the company was located in Bourg [Reydelet, procureur au bailliage, Bourg-en-Bresse, to STN, July 31, 1778].  While the lawyer threatened to take the company to the local bailliage court, it attempted to appease the STN by offering to fully repay everything it owed, but with a delay of four years and without interest.  Unacceptable, the STN replied: the lack of interest was the equivalent of writing off a fifth of the debt (5 percent over four years).  In the face of continued pressure from the lawyer in Bourg, Robert et Gauthier finally paid up.  But the debt amounted to only 311 livres, and the settlement in Bourg was incidental to the main event, a denouement that took place in Paris.   

            On July 29, 1778, the Parisian court heard the case brought against Robert et Gauthier by its creditors.  Although the final decision does not appear in the surviving documents, it probably resembled most bankruptcy settlements—that is, the creditors probably agreed to write off some of their debts and to collect the remainder according to a long-term repayment schedule that would permit Robert et Gauthier to continue in business.  Fortunately, the documentation includes the company’s balance sheet, which provides an unusually rich view of a provincial bookseller’s affairs [Archives du Département de la Seine, now Département de Paris, Fonds de faillites, D.4B6].  Robert et Gauthier operated on a fairly large scale.  Their debts came to 58,618 livres, their assets to 70,905 livres.  The balance evidently looked strong enough for the creditors to accept a delay in collecting unpaid bills of exchange rather than to force Robert et Gauthier to sell off everything and abandon their trade.  The assets included the company’s stock of books, evaluated at 55,230 livres, and debts owed to it by its customers, 15,675 livres—not a solid asset, as uncollected debts often remained unpaid.

            The debit side of the balance sheet showed that Robert et Gauthier acquired books from 19 Parisian publishers, including many of the most important houses in the trade: Desaint, Estienne, Saillant, Moutard, Knapen, Panckoucke, and Didot.  The company’s remaining sources of supply were three wholesalers in Lyon and three Swiss publishers: Gabriel Cramer and Jean-Samuel Cailler from Geneva and Samuel Fauche from Neuchâtel.  (The STN did not appear among the creditors, because it settled its debt in Bourg.)  The large number of Parisians may explain why the case took place in the capital, where Jacques Robert was said to have a residence: rue des Fossés St. Germain des Prés.  But the largest sums were owed to the suppliers in Lyon and Switzerland, who may have furnished the bulk of the company’s stock. 

            The stock, as it appears among the assets on the balance sheet, included 40 titles —none of them illegal, presumably because such works could not be mentioned in legal proceedings open to the public.   The list does not seem to be an inventory of everything in the company’s store rooms, because it mentions only works held in large quantities, usually 100 copies or more.  It probably excludes casual “livres d’assortiment” as well as “livres philosophiques.”  But it gives a general picture of the kind of books Robert et Gauthier sold.  They came from a wide variety of fields:


Literature and belles-lettres....9 titles




                                    Science and mathematics…...3



For the most part, they were serious, multi-volume works such as Maximes du droit français (6 volumes, evaluated at 12 livres a set), Abrégé de l’histoire ancienne de Monsieur Rollin, (5 volumes, evaluated at 10 livres), and Théatre français (a 14-volume anthology evaluated at 48 livres).  There was little light literature, and the literary holdings included several large sets: the works of Molière in 6 volumes, of Rousseau in 12 volumes, and of Piron in 7 volumes.  Whether such books typified Robert et Gauthier’s trade is difficult to say.  Because they existed in large quantities, some of them could have been the works that remained unsold—what booksellers called “gardes magasin”—rather than those that sold best.

            The list of persons who owed debts to Robert et Gauthier is more revealing.  It consists of 33 names.  Twelve are other booksellers, mostly small retailers like Faivre of Pontarlier and Considérant of Salins-les-Bains.  The rest are individuals who bought books wherever Robert and Gauthier peddled them.  Thus “M. l’avocat Regault, Lons-le-Saulnier;” “M. Jacquet, procureur du roi à Trévoux;” « M. l’abbé Perier à Coligny ; » « M. Vauchet, médecin à Pont-le-Saulnier ; » and « M. Moreau, conseiller à Macon. »   Those who appeared without a location after their names probably were customers at Bourg.  They were identified by their profession and can be classified as follows:



                                    Military officer…….......................3


                                    Trade (“marchands”)………….….4

                                    Administrative official…………...1


The statistics are too small to support general conclusions, but they are suggestive; and they are worth pondering, because they provide a rare example in which one can study diffusion not only from the publisher-wholesaler to the bookseller but also from the bookseller to individual consumers.  Most of Robert et Gauthier’s clients came from the middle ranks of provincial society.  The army officers probably were noblemen, as in the case of the only debtor who owed a large sum: “le marquis de Vienne, officier….1,120 livres.”  The rest belonged to the mixed elite that would be known as the “notables” in the nineteenth century.  There were no artisans or workers.

            On July 11, 1778 when Favarger arrived in Bourg-en-Bresse, the case had not been settled.  The STN had instructed him to look carefully into Robert et Gauthier’s affairs, but he had difficulty in gathering information.  No one except a clerk was present in their office, and he would not reveal anything about the books they kept in stock, would not even give Favarger a copy of their latest catalogue.  The clerk merely provided a list of ten unattractive works that they were willing to send in lieu of payment for their debt.  Favarger failed to gather gossip from local merchants, “car cela est assez caché ici.”  He heard only that despite the suspension of its payments, the company’s business was not altogether bad.  Robert, who had left to negotiate terms with the creditors in Paris, was said to offer them full payment, without interest, after a four-year delay or compensation in the form of books from the company’s stock.

            The exact terms of the settlement do not appear in the proceedings of the bankruptcy court, but Robert et Gauthier were back in business well before the spring of 1781, when their next letters appear in the papers of the STN, some of them from Belfort and some from Bourg.  The two branches of the company do not seem to have collaborated closely.  In May 1781, Gauthier in Belfort wanted 50 copies of Vie privée de Louis XV.  In June, Robert in Bourg complained that he had ordered the same book much earlier and that it had arrived too late for him to market it.  When the STN’s shipment failed to arrive, he had ordered copies from another supplier and sold nearly 150 of them.  Similar letters—orders mixed with complaints and observations about shipping conditions—continued to arrive for the next three years.  Insofar as they discussed demand, Robert (usually from Bourg) and Gauthier (usually from Belfort) showed special interest in Necker’s Compte rendu au roi and in the works of Rousseau.  The Rousseau, Gauthier explained, was meant for his customers in the Belfort garrison: “Ces Rousseau nous pressent extrêmement.  C’est pour des officiers qui changent le mois prochain.”  But the STN did not resume trading with Robert et Gauthier on a large scale.  Having been burned once, it would not extend much credit to them.  It refused to fill a large order in September, 1784 and never sent any shipments thereafter.    

            The statistics of the books that were most in demand according to Robert et Gauthier’s orders correspond to the general impressions conveyed by their correspondence.  Christin’s Dissertation sur l’établissement de l’Abbaye de St. Claude comes at the top of the list, because it had such relevance to the immediate public served by the booksellers.  It did not sell well elsewhere in France.  Necker’s Compte rendu au roi, Vie privée de Louis XV, and Rousseau’s works stood out among the books ordered in greatest quantity.  What does not appear, at least not in large numbers, is the genre of licentious “livres secrets” mentioned in the first letters.  Robert et Gauthier may have stocked many books of that kind, but they probably procured them from specialists in underground publishing such as Jean-Samuel Cailler of Geneva and Samuel Fauche of Neuchâtel, who had some of the largest uncollected debts mentioned in the balance sheet of the bankruptcy case.  Aside from Vie privée de Louis XV, the other strictly illegal books among the best-sellers ordered by Robert et Gauthier were works connected with the Enlightenment: d’Holbach’s Système de la nature, Marmontel’s Bélisaire, and Mercier’s Tableau de Paris.  But Robert et Gauthier did not deal primarily in illegal literature.  They favored travel books (Voyages dans les Indes Orientales by Johan Lucas Niecamp, Lettres d’un voyageur anglais by Martin Sherlock), belletristic works (Essai sur le caractère, les moeurs et l’esprit des femmes dans les différents siècles by Antoine-Léonard Thomas, Les Jardins by Jacques Delille) and some children’s literature (Annales de la vertu, ou cours d’histoire à l’usage des jeunes personnes by C.-S.-F Ducrest, comtesse de Genlis).  Their general strategy was to order a wide variety of books in small numbers per title, because they tried to keep the supply in their store rooms closely trimmed to the demand of their customers: “Nous en faisons la demande suivant que nous pouvons les placer.”  The full list of the 205 books they ordered covers a large range of literature, and their correspondence shows how it was diffused over a vast area of provincial France.